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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

September 29, 2010

What if university students don't appear to know even basic English?

Although this is the topic of a debate that I'm currently locked into at my own place of work, after a fair degree of peer hobnobbing I've come to realize that this is a pretty widespread concern.

Here's the deal. It is widely believed that academic performance standards in all subjects for 1st year Japanese university students are dropping, which should not be surprising given demographics in which, due to a low number of 18 year olds, competition for university entrance is decreasing. Therefore, universities have to accept students of lesser skill than before in order to fill their quotas.

The most often cited basis for these claims are the results of the English portion of the National Center Examination. Now, you should know that it's not that the Center Examination English scores have dropped on average but rather, since the total number of candidates has decreased, universities not ranked at the very top now have to accept students who have lower scores than they would have even ten years ago.

Of course, one may want to argue whether the Center Test should be the main barometer of English proficiency since, although the test is quite well made, given its function it cannot really address wide-ranging aspects of English proficiency. With more students exposed to foreign homestays, ALT, Super-English High Schools etc. in recent years, it is arguable that a certain sector of the youth population has actually increased in English proficiency

This is something I have noticed in my own classes in recent years. I certainly cannot say that the students of 12 years ago were any better than my current 1st year bunch. In fact, the newbies might even be better. But one reason for my intuitions may be the emphasis and weighting put on English on our Faculty of Medicine's Second Stage Entrance Exam, which naturally attracts students who are good at, or interested in, the subject.

However, many universities and especially individual faculties do not have English as a Second Stage Entrance Exam subject and thereby will attract students with only rudimentary English skills. This is the case with some faculties at my own university and, having taught in those faculties for several years in the past, I can vouch for the fact that many students are pretty much non-functional in English.

Two questions naturally follow. The first is, since the students have had six years of cumulative English study at the JHS and HS levels why can't they even master the very basics? After all, these discrete points of grammar and vocabulary would have appeared on tests in class, high school entrance exams, would have been a basic element of the more detailed HS curricula, and would have been a necessary element for any kind of success on the Center Examination.

The second is, given this state, how can university English teachers best address and correct it?

Let me answer the first question as a means of addressing the second.

Most of the 'academic' university-oriented JHS and HS classes focus upon English as a series of discrete points to be learned independently of each other, somewhat abstracted from larger contexts. The mode is almost always receptive, not productive. Student cognition is engaged only at the lowest levels.

The cognitive level is known as recognition. At this level, students know the item only in a passive, receptive way- for example, being able to identify it as the correct choice on a multiple choice question where text and potential answers are provided by the materials writer.

Higher levels of cognition, such as 'recall', 'retrieval' and especially, 'reproduction' are rarely engaged in JHS/HS. So, while the students 'know' the items in a certain sense, enough to complete receptive-focused tests, they don't know them in terms of any higher cognitive plane. This explains how they could make it through HS and all the entrance exams but still have only a tenuous, nearly unconscious grasp of all these discrete English items in vivo.

Let me give two examples here. If you have students of the caliber I'm referring to you probably often see student-generated texts such as, "University can join club" or "I borned in Fukuoka". (By the way, although Medical students are generally more proficient than others, a few come in to this faculty at that level too. And most of the Nursing students I teach- which has no English on the entrance exam- fall into this category)

Now, if you placed these two sentences on a multiple-choice type test, I believe 99% of these students would identify the forms written above as incorrect, and that most would choose the correct answers. To wit:
Q1. How should you express your birthplace in English?
A. I borned Fukuoka
B. I was born Fukuoka
C. I was born in Fukuoka.
D. I had born in Fukuoka.

The students thus, in some sense, know the best answer or at least, recognize some of the faulty ones. But they can't reproduce it in writing or speaking within meaningful contexts. Will having them do tests like this really help them to internalize the correct form? It's highly doubtful.

After all, they all know how to form a passive from an active sentence but are not cognizant of the fact that their own birth demands the passive. However, if you allow for meaningful and productive contexts in which they can see the correct form and be allowed to generate it themselves, with it recycled or revised in extended classroom tasks as necessary, they can- and do- get it. Higher cognition is engaged.

Let's look at...
Q2. How can you best express (Japanese phrase here) in English?
A. University is a join club
B. At university, we can join a club
C. University can join club
D. At university, can join club

Again, I'm confident that 99% of those who might write (C) above when trying to write a 'report' in English would NOT choose it as the answer in this question. So, again, in a sense, at some level they know it's wrong but only on a passive, recognition-based level. Therefore, 'teaching' how a prepositional phrase is needed since 'university' is not the direct subject of the verb, and that a personal pronoun is also subsequently needed to be the head of the clause, will not aid in them being able to reproduce the correct form but will simply reinforce a latent understanding at the level of recognition only.

Rather, to fix this, imagine nursing students generating lists of functions of different hospital departments and then, with revision, making posters to present them to other students. In it would be the formula:
"In the ___________ department, we ____________________".

Having used this repeatedly in a meaningful context that relates to their own interests and demands their own cognitive input and is largely self-generated, does anybody NOT think that they would internalize the form at a deeper cognitive level- and certainly one that is more in keeping with the notion of getting a university education?

So here our second question is being answered. Since we see that the cause of the problem is that their comprehension exists only at the lowest levels of cognition, a product of teaching English as an accumulation of discrete items through a receptive mode, the very LAST thing one should do at university would be to teach them this content again- as discrete items, in a receptive, de-contextualized mode.

After all, if the students didn't 'get' them in any holistic sense before this why expect that, using the same faulty methodology, that they will suddenly understand them now? Until higher levels of cognition are engaged, their knowledge of English will remain latent, fragmented and non-extendable beyond passive test-taking skills of the Center Examination variety.

It also means covering JHS content at a university, which simply obviates the whole point of being a university. Lowering the bar like this is unlikely to spur the students on to a deeper, more widely-focused grasp of English. For these reasons, remedial, review programs, especially those found in much E-learning, with it's generally de-contextualized, receptive, discrete point focus, will simply perpetuate the problem.

Instead, what is needed is the engagement of higher levels of cognition in students, such that latent knowledge becomes more conscious (and ultimately, productive) and fragmented understandings begin to take on a more holistic shape. We have to coax out that latent ability by giving it voice. This means allowing productive, meaning-based English learning to occur. And since students enter specific universities faculties from day one in Japan, contexts are ready-made. Not only that, but it more accurately meets the idea of what a university should be- a place of higher learning.

My expectation, in fact I should say my experience, is that by raising the bar, and in expecting that the students have the latent knowledge/ability/interest to engage the topic, they can and will do it. The passive turns to the active, the receptive to the productive, the discrete item finds a meaningful context for expression, content becomes more interesting, self-generated as it meets students interests, and cognition of the topic is increased.

Remedial approaches that try to 'fix' the problem simply by repeating the same faulty and limiting views of language, flawed methodologies, and thereby lower the bar with decidedly non-academic approaches are just shooting themselves in the foot.



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